Tax, redistribution and economic performance: the micro and the macro

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the youngest woman ever to be elected to the US Congress, has made headlines recently with her arguments for much greater marginal rates of tax on the highest earners. Oxford University’s Simon Wren-Lewis yesterday posted this helpful piece on some of the economics and politics of such a policy. He is broadly in favour, and makes a good case for it.

Wren-Lewis is something of a New Keynesian, coming from the centre-left of mainstream thinking. The post covers plenty of ground, but tends to only focus on the microeconomics, while neglecting the macroeconomics, of higher taxes and redistribution. Continue reading


Equality and growth – no conflict?

“To lay a factual foundation to the argument for raising the American income floor, we need to sweep away the remnants of an older view that policies cannot promote both equality and growth. The older view assumed an “efficiency-equity trade-off.” If such were true, then nothing could be done to foster economic growth without the collateral damage of greater inequality, or greater equality without the collateral damage of less growth.

History does not confirm such a trade-off. To remember why, first consider a simple point about the political process…A dominant historical outcome has been that vested interests have blocked initiatives that would promote growth and/or equality. A conspicuous example is the suppression of mass public schooling – an investment that clearly promotes both equality and growth. Our second consideration comes from the numbers: history does not record any correlation – negative or positive – between income equalization and economic growth, either in our new American history over the past 360 years or world history over the past 150 years. The correlation does not emerge, regardless of whether “growth” means the GDP per capita growth rate or its absolute level, and regardless of whether “equalization” means the share of social spending in GDP, some measure of policy-induced redistribution, the level of pre-fisc income inequality before taxes and transfers, or even the rate of change in any of these.

Economists have explored the effects on income per capita growth of three kinds of egalitarian variables: tax-based social spending and its composition; fiscal redistribution, measured by the gap between pre- and post-fisc inequality; and the greater equality of pre-fisc incomes before taxes and transfers. An empirical literature using contemporary world evidence finds that the growth effect of equalizing incomes is not significant. History agrees. American experience does not reveal any clear effect on GDP of greater tax-based social spending or more progressive redistribution from rich to poor. Indeed, recent analyses suggest that greater pre-fisc equality has a positive effect on growth. This result supports the argument that egalitarian investments in human capital simultaneously achieve more equality and more growth. While these statistical results can be and have been debated, they do not support any claim that equalizing incomes must lower growth. American income history offers no support either.

If there were any fulcrum at which historical insight might be applied to move inequality, it would be political…no nation has used up all its political opportunities for leveling income without harming economic growth. Improving education, taxing large inheritances, and taming financial instability with regulatory vigilance – the opportunities are there, like hundred dollar bills lying on the sidewalk. Of course, the fact that they are still lying there testifies to the political difficulty of bending over to pick them up.”

Peter H. Lindert and Jeffrey G. Williamson (2016), Unequal Gains – American Growth and Inequality since 1700, Princeton University Press, p.261-2.

There are influential theoretical arguments in economics supporting policies which promote growth by, on the one hand, increasing and, on the other, reducing inequality. The above conclusion to Lindert and Williamson’s comprehensive historical study of American growth and inequality is either ambivalent to or in support of a positive relationship between reduced inequality, certainly at its current level in many countries, and faster growth.

Their argument is that the forces generating inequality are largely exogenous (they come from outside the economic system), and so can be altered through policy without harming growth.

Clearly there are limits to this. Perfect equality of incomes and wealth would destroy the incentives required for economic activity. Ever-increasing inequality could also lead to the sort of social division and political instability which would be destructive of the status quo. Neither extreme is sustainable.

From a macroeconomic perspective, greater inequality can promote or reduce growth, depending on the economic context. If productive investment is constrained by a lack of savings, redistributing income and wealth to those economic agents who tend to save a larger share of their income, such as the wealthier members of society or firms, would provide the resources for that investment by increasing the economy’s savings rate. In this situation, greater inequality can boost growth.

This is an argument often associated with Marxist thinking and the central notion of the rate of profit or surplus in providing the resources and motivation for new investment. Growth is “profit-led”.

By contrast, if productive investment is constrained by a lack of consumption spending, then redistribution to those who consume a larger share of their income, normally the poorer members of society, will boost consumption and stimulate investment. In this case, reducing inequality can boost growth, while policies which increase it will lower growth.

This latter argument finds support in Keynesian and post-Keynesian thinking, so that spending for consumption helps drive investment spending. Growth is held back by “under-consumption” and is “wage-led”. If this is the case, then a strong argument can be made for win-win progressive policies which boost household incomes and wages and reduce inequality while raising growth.

Inequality shapes and is shaped by both economic and political forces. There is perhaps “plenty to play for” in terms of policies which promote greater social justice under capitalism, without undermining its foundations. In today’s climate, they are surely essential to sustaining those foundations.

Ha-Joon Chang: taxation is not theft

In a modern capitalist economy, taxation is not theft but a necessary source of funding for all sorts of public goods and services that make the economy and society function well. It also shapes behavioural incentives in ways that can further promote social welfare. This is worth reiterating. Many of us may not like paying taxes. Some public spending may be wasted, and it often benefits particular groups at the expense of others, although this is inherent to politics. But it remains an essential element of the good society.

Michael Hudson interview part 2

Following Tuesday’s video, here is more from this interview with Michael Hudson on Trump’s economic policies, from tax cuts and trade wars to infrastructure, privatisation, industrial policy, Wall Street versus Main Street and Artificial Intelligence and its effects on unemployment.

Michael Hudson on government

Another extract from the iconoclastic Michael Hudson’s J is for Junk Economics (p.109-110), in this occasional series:

Government: From the Greek root cyber, meaning “to steer,” this social control function historically has been provided by public institutions at least ostensibly for the general welfare. Sovereign states are traditionally defined as having the powers to levy taxes, make and enforce laws, and regulate the economy. These planning functions are now in danger of passing to financial centers as governments become captive of the vested interests. The FIRE (Finance, Insurance and Real Estate) sector and its neoliberal supporters seek to prevent the public from regulating monopoly rent, and also aim to shift the tax burden onto labor and industry.

The recently proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement and its European counterpart, the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), would compel governments to relinquish these powers to corporate lawyers and referees appointed by Wall Street, the City of London, Frankfurt and other financial centers. The non-governmental court would oblige governments to pay compensation fines for enacting new taxes or applying environmental protection regulations or penalties. The fines would reflect what companies would have been able to make on rent extraction, pollution of the environment and other behavior usually coming under sovereign government regulations. Making governments buy these rights by fully compensating mineral and other rent-extracting businesses would effectively end the traditional role of the state.”

Michael Hudson on Adam Smith

More on Adam Smith, this time from the pen of Michael Hudson in his excellent heterodox ‘dictionary’ J is for Junk Economics (p.28):

Adam Smith (1723-1790): Traveling to France and meeting with the Physiocrats, Smith adopted their advocacy of a land tax: “Landlords love to reap where they have not sown, and demand a rent for its (the land’s) natural produce” (Wealth of Nations, Book I, Ch. 6, S.8). Landownership privileges “are founded on the most absurd of all suppositions, the supposition that every successive generation of men has not an equal right to the earth…but that the property of the present generation should be…regulated according to the fancy of those who died…five hundred years ago,” that is, the Norman conquerors (Book III, Ch. 2, S.6). Driving home the point, he adds: “The dearness of house-rent in London arises…above all the dearness of ground-rent, every landlord acting the part of a monopolist” (Ch. 10, S.55). Yet free market economists have tried to appropriate Adam Smith as their mascot, stripping away his critique of ground-rent and monopolies to depict him as a patron saint of deregulation and lower property taxes.

Regarding monopolies, Smith observed that almost every private interest represents its gains as a public benefit, as when CEO Charles Wilson proclaimed that what’s good for General Motors is good for the country. But in reality, Smith noted: “People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices…though the law cannot hinder people of the same trade from sometimes assembling together, it ought to do nothing to facilitate such assemblies; much less to render them necessary” (Book I, Ch. 10, S.82).

Opposing the wars resulting from empire building and colonialism, Smith urged that the American colonies be liberated so as to free Britain from the costs of wars financed by public debts that taxed consumer essentials to carry the interest charges.”

“America First”, Fiscal Policy and Financial Stability: a report on the US economy

What does the future hold for the US economy, given its current trajectory and recent changes in government policy?

The Levy Economics Institute of Bard College, of which distinguished former associates include post-Keynesians Hyman Minsky and Wynne Godley, has just published its Strategic Analysis report on the medium-term prospects for the US.

Godley is recognised as having predicted a severe recession in the US some years before it began in 2008, due to the unsustainable build-up in private sector debt, particularly among households.

Minsky is also well known for his ‘financial instability hypothesis’ and its implication that ‘stability is destabilising’ in the financial sector of capitalist economies: periods of stable economic growth can create fragile balance sheets in the private sector, which often lead to stagnation or crisis. Continue reading